This is why gaming aficionados can sit playing for hours on end. Applying those principles to the classroom has the same effect, says Larry Graykin, a language arts teacher at Barrington Middle School in New Hampshire. "The key benefit in my opinion is that it provides context for work that might not otherwise have a clear context," says Graykin, who gamified his classroom two years ago. "We can say, 'You need this for high school,' and that works for a certain population of kids. But for a lot of kids, they don’t see that far into their future."
Another benefit is the shift in emphasis from getting a grade to learning the material. In most gamified classrooms, students work for experience points (known as XP) instead of grades on tests or exercises. Rather than being penalized for what they don't know, students are rewarded for continuing to try until they learn the material.
"That's one of the things that I think is most critical in terms of this being a sort of paradigm shift," Graykin says. "In the traditional classroom, an unfortunate side effect of averaged grades is if a student does very poorly on one big test, or something like that, that's it. I've actually heard in teacher room conversations, 'Oh, well, there's no way he could possibly pass now.' And this eliminates that. They can rally at the last minute—and they do. "
Typically, every student in a gamified classroom starts out with zero XP, accumulating quests and accomplishments that translate into a letter grade by the end of the class. "They are participating, they are engaged," Sheldon says. "If for example, somebody doesn't do well on an exam, they can take the exam again. I'm trying to teach them, I'm not trying to trick them."
The result is that students feel that they are in control, with the teacher merely serving as a game master. They challenge themselves and collaborate with one another—and develop healthy competition when necessary—because they see the benefit to their own progress in the game. "The goal," says Lee, "is to make learning more about intrinsic motivation—to leverage a learner’s desire to explore, be curious, gain mastery, and so on. If a learner can gain experience points and level up as they gain knowledge, perhaps we can cultivate life-deep, life-wide, and lifelong learners."
The practice is not perfect, and not the right fit for every instructor. "Some teachers may not feel sufficiently equipped to try designing a game layer for their classroom," Lee says. "It takes some creativity, patience, and sometimes extra work to do gamification the first time. It’s much easier to not take a risk and to do education the safe, traditional way."
And some students just aren't that into it either. Juho Hamari and Jonna Koivisto of the University of Tampere in Finland have studied gamification extensively, and they've found that some students simply dislike competition. "Similarly," Hamari notes, "all students might not appreciate narratives and, for example, role-playing type of interactions."